01 Oct 1996

Lasting Impressions

Steve Belkin, Eve Benton, Mike Feeley, Ed Mathias, and Joe O'Donnell—five classmates who know their class well—share their impressions of the life and times of the Class of 1971.
by Deborah E. Blagg


Left to right: Feeley, Belkin, O'Donnell, Mathias, and Benton

It was, in the words of one MBA '71 yearbook scribe, "a trying two years" at HBS. The class that celebrates its 25th Reunion this year came to Soldiers Field in September 1969, one month after Woodstock and one month before the October 15 moratorium that shut down universities across the country to protest the Vietnam War. That demonstration brought Harvard University economist John Kenneth Galbraith to the HBS campus for a speech against the war, followed by a three-hundred-person march to Harvard Square behind a banner heralding "Harvard 'B' for Peace."

It was an extraordinary introduction to student life at the B-School, and as events such as the student killings at Kent State and Jackson State, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, and the trial of the Chicago Seven unfolded during the following months, it became apparent that those in the Class of '71 were destined to earn their MBAs during one of the most turbulent social and political eras of our times.

Turbulence within the class, in the form of widely divergent views on the day's events, was also in evidence. A petition urging corporate America to become a force for peace in Indochina was signed by one-third of the student body and later publicly denounced by other students who felt the gesture misrepresented the majority's opinion at the School. Bearded "peaceniks" faced off in heated debate with Vietnam vets who still wore military garb to class. And the relative handful of African Americans and women on campus daily confronted cultural problems that could not be solved with a slide rule and pencil.

Events came to a head in May 1970, when hundreds of students and some faculty members assembled on Baker Beach to decide whether or not to join with students across the country and engage in a symbolic strike to protest the shootings at Kent State. Dean Lawrence E. Fouraker, in his first year in office, presided from the steps of Baker Library as some students railed against the invasion of Cambodia, others spoke with pride of their recent military service in Vietnam, and still others broke through the din with shouts of "Free Bobby Seale!"

When all was said and done, the students voted - narrowly - not to strike. Afterward, from most accounts, much of the momentum behind the protests at HBS dissipated. The Class of1971 settled down to a far more traditional second-year experience, with some notable departures: there was a heightened level of interest in the role of student government within the institution; a number of volunteer student organizations were formed to reach out to the surrounding community; and the term "social responsibility" found its way into case discussions with some degree of regularity.

"Looking back, those two years are probably a little like the first home run you ever hit," notes Joe O'Donnell, a former varsity catcher at Harvard College and now chairman and CEO of Boston Concessions Group, Inc. "At the time, the ball just barely cleared the fence, but 25 years later you remember it sailing out of the schoolyard and breaking the neighbor's window.

"I'd certainly say ours was a unique time at the School, but it wasn't as though we were burning down buildings and joining the SDS - we worked very hard," continues O'Donnell, who has vivid memories of his first day at HBS. "We were greeted by the Dean in Carey Cage: a brigade of clean-cut guys in three-piece suits; about seventy minority students, most of them wearing dashikis and Afro hairstyles; and around thirty brave-hearted women."

Within a month, O'Donnell recalls, "the three-piece-suit culture was dead. We dressed casually, and a lot of us grew beards and longer hair. There was a major change in attitude, and I think it was directly attributable to the presence of minorities and women in the class. They were really pioneers, and I think they made the whole school a more human place."

One of those "pioneers," Eve Benton, currently executive vice president of Bund Capital, came to HBS at 22, directly after graduating from Smith College. "By nature, I'm a pretty self-confident person," says Benton, "but I remember feeling totally intimidated at Harvard. Coming straight from an all-women's prep school and college, I was suddenly one of the only women in a class with hundreds of older guys - grown men! I was out of my element and much too scared to talk in class."

"I had a sense from the first day that ours was going to be a class in transition," says Mike Feeley, chairman of the Sino-American Development Corporation, who also serves as 1971's class secretary. "There was a real sense that the School had made a strategic decision to become more diverse. There were also a number of international students and people from West Point and the Navy Nuclear Sub program. I had a lot of respect for the military people and shared their opposition to Jane Fonda's antiwar activities. It wasn't until many years later that I came to appreciate the dissenting view of the Vietnam War."

Ed Mathias, now a managing director of the Carlyle Group, a merchant bank in Washington, D.C., came to HBS after serving as an officer in the Navy Supply Corps and spending time in Vietnam; he was later a military social aide assigned to the White House under President Johnson. "While we weren't greatly accepted in Cambridge at that time," he recalls, "it wasn't uncommon to have a military background and to be at the Business School. The Charles River was a real dividing line." Married and, at 28, older than many of his classmates, Mathias says, "I looked at the Business School pretty much as a two-year job. I wasn't against the political activism of the day, but my priority was really to get through the classes and get my degree. I had already had more than five years' military experience, and I wanted to put that behind me and move forward."

In contrast, Steve Belkin, who entered HBS right after graduation from Cornell and was one of the youngest members of the class, was in Harvard Square when the police started shooting tear gas into the crowd during the antiwar disturbance that rocked the University in the spring of 1970. "I went over mainly out of curiosity - to observe and see what was going on," explains Belkin, now chairman and CEO of Trans National Group, a large direct-marketing company he started just three years after graduating from HBS. "The events of that first year had a profound impact on me. Young, bright, respectable students were standing up against the police, the university, and our government. I was 22 years old. Seeing that people my age and younger could take a different point of view and speak out against authority figures really made me examine my own feelings and attitudes.

"It encouraged me to be more independent," Belkin continues. "In a way, I think it fertilized my entrepreneurial leanings. I also believe it made me more community oriented. As a result, I wanted to take what was good about the establishment or society and make it a little bit better."

Graduating from HBS at the dawn of the psychedelic '70s, the Class of 1971 nevertheless seemed to follow in the footsteps of generations of MBAs before them, opting for careers on Wall Street or in manufacturing, real estate, or consulting. After all, at a time when many of their peers were vehemently opposed to involvement in "the establishment," they had chosen to come to business school, an indication that their managerial ambitions were deeply rooted.

"I always wanted to go to business school," notes Feeley. "My dad was an entrepreneur, and through him I had met a number of wonderful businessmen who were very good role models. I loved the idea of marketing and serving customers, and I planned to go to business school right after college. My father talked me into going to law school first, but after I finished with that, I got back to what I really loved."

"I was always entrepreneurial," says O'Donnell, "and the idea of being independent has always been important to me." The son of a policeman, O'Donnell attended Harvard College on a scholarship and started a successful student housing service while he was a student at HBS.

Steve Belkin's first business experience goes back even further, to his elementary school days, when he bought packages of light bulbs in bulk and sold them door-to-door in his neighborhood at slightly below retail prices. "I think I always wanted to have control over my future. We didn't have a lot of financial stability at home, so gaining control over my destiny became very important to me," he notes.

Eve Benton says that her parents instilled in her the desire to be self-reliant and to know how to manage money. "I was an only child. My father was a lawyer, and my mother worked in his law practice. Even in high school, I knew I wanted to have a career, and by the time I entered my freshman year of college I had decided to go to Wall Street."

The HBS experience played a key role in shaping and focusing the early ambitions of these five classmates. "Educationally - that is, the thought process, methods for structuring and analyzing problems, and the opportunity to confront a variety of issues - the School had an extraordinary influence on my life," states Mathias. "I tend to remember the professors, particularly in finance, more than the courses, though: Colyer Crum, Charlie Williams, Sam Hayes, and many others. It's amazing how each of them had a great influence on the way my thinking has been applied in my chosen field."

"C. Roland Christensen had the greatest impact on me," notes Feeley. "He got me focused on strategy and policy issues. I've spent all of my life trying to do things in multiple time frames, trying to connect the short-term perspective with intermediate and long-range goals. Chris was a master in the classroom, and his Business Policy course was fantastic."

Belkin clearly remembers the late marketing professor Steven Star asking him to open class discussion four days in a row. "I was so upset - I thought I was being victimized," he remembers. "But when I went to talk to him about it after that fourth time, he said he just thought I had done a very good job, and he wanted to bring out my comments as much as possible. Well, I learned a lot from that experience. To this day, I am always well-prepared for any meeting I go to. And I tend to take another look when it seems like things are not going my way, because I might just be staring at a real opportunity for growth."

Since leaving HBS, class members have seized opportunities for growth in a variety of endeavors. Over the years, an extraordinary number have gravitated toward entrepreneurial ventures. A 20th Reunion survey of the class revealed that out of a sample of 341 people, 211 considered themselves to be entrepreneurs. "Maybe it has something to do with growing up in an era when we and our peers were questioning the way the world was being run," speculates Belkin. "You see the world through the eyes of your past experiences, and the late '60s through early '70s made us look at a number of things, including business opportunities, differently."

Benton, who found opportunities for women with little work experience severely limited in investment banking in the 1970s, ended up working in advertising for a number of years before starting her own successful real-estate business in Washington, D.C. "I don't take orders well," she laughs. "As time went on, it became clear to me that I'd be happier and more successful on my own. I also married an entrepreneur, and his encouragement and moral support have been pivotal, as have contacts with my HBS classmates." Since 1992, Benton has been with a Florida-based company founded by her husband, Malcolm Bund. The company uses funds from private investors to acquire and help manage middle-market companies in the building and auto parts industries. "Some of our investors are HBS classmates," Benton notes, "and I value those relationships."

Mike Feeley has been involved in several entrepreneurial ventures since ending a fifteen-year career with established Wall Street investment firms. "I decided I wanted to inject some of my own personal beliefs into the way I conduct business," he says. "I've had some Jesuit training, and I wanted to reconcile that part of my life with my professional activities in the investment industry. I made a conscious decision that I didn't want to advance myself at the expense of other people.

"It hasn't been easy," continues Feeley, whose most recent startup is the Sino-American Development Corporation, which he helped launch in 1993 to foster closer relations between U.S. and Chinese leaders. "China is a huge market, and I believe that the most important issue facing the world at this time is whether our two countries will connect as friends or as adversaries. I'm thrilled to have a chance to influence that effort."

After more than two decades with T. Rowe Price Associates, a prominent investment management firm, three years ago Ed Mathias decided he wanted to make a career change while he still had attractive options. "My wife and I had adopted a child six years ago, and I wanted to have more flexibility in terms of my time," he explains. "I really enjoy the investment business, and I didn't want to lose any momentum, but I knew I wanted something different." At the Carlyle Group, says Mathias, "I've been able to create a portfolio of interesting business activities in a way that has allowed me to combine my personal and professional interests."

Both successful entrepreneurs of long standing, Joe O'Donnell and Steve Belkin suggest that the strongest common threads in their class may be the need for independence and the desire to parlay professional success into something beneficial for the community. "When I started out, undoubtedly, financial success was a strong motivator for me," recalls Belkin. "But once I saw the impact that I could have on both the company and the community as a corporate leader, I began to see business as a place where I could grow personally and where I could help others develop."

"I'm not sure how to explain it," offers O'Donnell, "but I think the '60s and '70s had a humanizing effect on a lot of us and on how we approach business. I always knew that success would enable me to be able to take care of my family and have control over my own destiny. But what I didnÕt realize is how much it would mean to be able to help other people, to give something back to the institutions that gave me a chance along the way."

"When I was at the Business School, I think I measured success in terms of how much money I was going to make," reveals Benton. "Now it is more important to provide a good environment for our employees, return money to our investors, enjoy life, and have enough time for my family." Benton has also been active in a number of nonprofit ventures throughout her career. "I love the feeling that I'm giving something back," she notes.

"The 'results' from our class to date, not just financially but also in terms of contributions to society and personal successes, are extraordinary," observes Mathias, who serves with OÕDonnell, Belkin, and Joe Rogers as a 25th reunion chairman. He says that in visiting with classmates during the past year he has been struck by the scope of their interests. "There are people who are still active and on the ascendency in their careers, while others are establishing new ventures. Some have retired early and become involved in nonprofit ventures, and others have gone into education, the ministry, art - the whole gamut."

In the course of his recent conversations with classmates, Belkin has gained a sense for what the next 25 years may bring for some. "Many of us have been very fortunate," he notes. "We're at a juncture where we have a variety of choices open to us. Some people are staying on the same path, but a number are starting to travel in a different direction.

"I would say that balance is a common denominator for many of us," he continues. "That's a concept that we really didn't learn at HBS but one that has become important over the years. I think we all started out spending the lion's share of our time on business, but we're now shifting that a bit to make more time for family and community activities. I still view work as an arena where I can thrive and grow, but in 25 years I've gone from being a rookie on the team to being a star player, and now I'm really making the transition to coach."

Joe O'Donnell concurs. "I love this business. For me, it's really hard to differentiate between work and pleasure, because I get so much pleasure out of what I do. I think many in the class feel that way about staying active professionally, but we're also starting to find more time for outside activities."

When the Bulletin asked these classmates to look back over the last 25 years and offer some sage advice to MBAs just starting their careers, their responses contained a similar advocacy for what one of them termed a "wholistic" approach to life and work, with emphasis on the "whole."

"We all have to be true to ourselves in the end" notes Feeley, "so be sure that the professional choices you make don't require you to compromise personal principles."

"Don't let other people set your standards," cautions Mathias. "The most successful people in the world have at least one common attribute: they like what they do."

"Find a way to balance the different parts of your life," says Benton. "This is especially important with women managers who want to have families. It is difficult, but it's not impossible if you make that balance your priority."

"Conceive it, believe it, achieve it," advises Belkin, who observes that "many people in business have great ideas, but those who are successful believe in the efficacy of their ideas and in themselves."

And finally, O'Donnell, who says that as a young man he never listened to those who gave him advice, reluctantly offers the following: "It's basic," he says. "Be honest with yourself and with others. Figure out what kind of a life you want to have in 25 years and then hold onto that ideal. If you graduate from HBS, you'll certainly have the tools to achieve whatever you want, so just stay at it and believe in yourself."

Steven B. Belkin founded the Trans National Group, a direct marketer of financial services and travel, in 1974 his first attempt at starting his own company. Because venture capitalists were unwilling to fund travel businesses in the wake of the 1973 fuel crisis, Belkin financed his startup with an American Express card and small investments from twelve close friends. Today the parent company has grown to over $175 million per year in sales and employs more than 300 people. Holding 90 percent ownership of the company, he views it as "a family of entrepreneurs" but in recent years has also started a venture capital company that finances outside ventures. "I'm funding and nurturing new ventures, watching people grow, and learning from the process myself," he notes.

In conjunction with his business successes, Belkin has placed great emphasis on community involvement. "I've always made sure that we give back a lot to the community, because I feel that it's a win-win situation: if you contribute to the well-being of society, it will naturally be good for your business as well," he explains. A few of Belkin's outside interests include trusteeships at the New England Sports Museum and Temple Beth Elohim, active involvement with the Anti-Defamation League, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, and the Grow Clinic for Children at Boston City Hospital. He also serves on the Cornell University Council and on the Harvard University Board of Overseers.

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After working in marketing and advertising with Young & Rubicam and Dancer, Fitzgerald, Sample, Eve Benton moved to Washington, D.C., and formed her own real-estate company in the mid-1970s. "Real estate was booming in Washington at the time," she recalls, "and I started out renovating residential property. In 1979 I formed The Executive Office Group, a shared office suite business." After successfully selling this business in 1986 to a New York-based public company, Benton was able to become more involved in nonprofit activities, such as Leadership Washington, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and Washington Performing Arts Society, and to spend more time with her son, Geoffrey, who was then three years old.

In 1992, Benton became executive vice president of Bund Capital, a corporate acquisition firm started by her husband in 1985. "We raise private funds in blind pools and acquire middle-market companies primarily in the building materials and automotive parts industries," she explains. "We monitor the companies we control and work closely with each CEO."

After moving to Naples, Florida, last April, Benton says she is looking forward to her new life and becoming involved in a growing community. Regarding the future, she says, "I may someday begin or buy a company of my own to run exclusively, but not for a few more years. The work at Bund Capital is quite enough challenge for the present."

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Michael J. Feeley cofounded the New York City-based Sino-American Development Corporation in 1993 and serves as its chairman. The company works with partners to develop new business enterprises in China, particularly in music and entertainment. A graduate of Georgetown University, Fordham Law School, and HBS (where he earned his MBA with distinction and won a fellowship from the George F. Baker Foundation), Feeley worked for four years with MitchellHutchins, Inc., as a security analyst and institutional salesman and for eleven years at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. as an institutional salesman and portfolio manager before launching his first entrepreneurial venture, Feeley & Willcox, Inc., in 1986. Part of that venture began a phase-out last year, leaving Feeley extra time to invest in the startup of his new firm. "I realized in 1991 that China was going to be the most extraordinary place to invest for the next several decades," he notes. "After trying a few paths, we've decided to focus on sales and distribution to the Chinese consumer. We're now a minority partner in China First Music, helping Bob Morgado, former CEO of Warner Music, to build a music and entertainment business in China."

Feeley also serves as that venture began a phase-out last year, leaving Feeley extra time to invest in the startup of his new firm. "I realized in 1991 that China was going to be the most extraordinary place to invest for the next several decades," he notes. "After trying a few paths, we've decided to focus on sales and distribution to the Chinese consumer. We're now a minority partner in China First Music, helping Bob Morgado, former CEO of Warner Music, to build a music and entertainment business in China."

Feeley also serves as an account executive with Ernst & Company and is a member of the Board of Visitors for Georgetown University's Graduate Public Policy Program.

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From 1971 to 1993, Edward J. Mathias worked at T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., most recently as a managing director. Throughout this period, he was heavily involved in investment activities related to emerging growth companies. He served on that company's board of directors and was a member of its management committee for over ten years before joining the Carlyle Group, a Washington, D.C.-based merchant bank he had helped to establish in 1994. As a managing director at the Carlyle Group, Mathias is active in identifying and funding companies with high, sustained growth potential. In addition, he serves as something of a utility player in helping to facilitate Carlyle's rapid expansion as a worldwide investor.

"I wanted to make a change that would provide a platform allowing me to remain an active investor, and where I could continue to play a meaningful, albeit less demanding, role." In addition, after he and his wife adopted a baby daughter in 1990, Mathias wanted a bit more control over his time and less day-to-day management responsibility. "So far," he reports, "I've been fortunate enough to work that out."

An active investor in limited partnerships and private companies, Mathias is a special limited partner in Trident Capital, a partnership focusing on business and information service companies. He serves on numerous corporate boards including Ovation, PathoGenesis, U.S. Office Supply, and Sirrom Capital. In addition, he is on the Board of Overseers at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Arts and Sciences and serves as chairman of the Board of Visitors at American University's Kogod School of Business Administration.

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Joseph J. O'Donnell attended Harvard College on a scholarship and started an on-campus housing service while he was a student at HBS. After graduation he served as associate dean of students in the MBA Program and later as associate director of the Program for Management Development. In 1976 he went to work for a small food service company, which he bought a year later. His Boston Concessions Group, Inc., is now a multimillion dollar company that operates and supplies food service concessions in recreational sites (stadiums, arenas, ski resorts, etc.) throughout the United States, in addition to running a number of movie theaters, ski areas, and theme parks.

"The recreation industry is a great business to be in, partly because I get to spend time with my family and friends in interesting locations," notes O'Donnell, who has two young daughters. A third child, Joey, died ten years ago after battling cystic fibrosis, which led O'Donnell and his wife to start The Joey Fund to support research on the disease. It is one of many significant charitable activities for O'Donnell, who is also involved in several Harvard alumni groups on both sides of the river and recently endowed the College's baseball program with a gift of $2.5 million. "There are many people along the way -- starting with your parents -- who help you to get to a position where you can make a difference,' he observes. "At this point in my life, I feel it is my responsibility to start giving something back. That's what drives me now."

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